COP out no more: It is time to address livestock production waste

Nowhere in our food supply chain is the amount of waste greater and more damaging than in the industrial production of meat.

The livestock industry gobbles up resources, degrades the environment and still fails to provide us with adequate nutrition, write Bruun and O'Sullivan [Alexander Ryumin/TASS via Getty Images]

What comes to your mind when you think of food waste? Scraps in the kitchen bin, sad-looking leftovers in the fridge, or maybe some fruit rotting on the counter? Most of the time, when we think of waste, we don’t think beyond our own homes. But waste occurs at every stage in the food supply chain.

Every year an estimated 2.5 billion tonnes of food goes to waste globally, accounting for around 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. This wasted food takes an area of land roughly the size of China and India combined, to grow. Nowhere in our food supply chain is the amount of waste greater and more damaging than in the industrial production of meat. It is estimated that a staggering 153 million tonnes of meat are wasted at the farm level every year. Coupled with horrifically high livestock mortality rates caused by poor standards of animal husbandry, among other factors, this waste represents not only a moral catastrophe but an environmental disaster. And this is only one part of the problem.

A waste of precious resources

Currently, more than one-third of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12 percent of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet (as meat and other animal products). Producing 1kg of beef, for example, requires roughly 8kg of feed.

With such low returns, does it still make sense for humanity to invest in livestock production?

The livestock industry gobbles up resources, degrades the environment and still fails to provide us with adequate nutrition. Research has estimated that 400 million hectares of cropland produce feed for livestock in a way that competes with food crop production. Essentially, we are using large amounts of land to feed livestock that could be used to feed humans. It is estimated that growing crops only for human use could boost available food calories by up to 70 percent, serving an additional four billion people. In other words, there is ample evidence that transitioning to plant-rich diets can help improve equitable food distribution and nutrition security.

If food production should aim to deliver maximum nutritional output with minimal environmental impact, then industrial livestock should have no place in any future food systems.

An inherently inefficient method of food production

The livestock industry is vast – there are 23 billion chickens, 1.5 billion head of cattle, 1.2 billion sheep, 1 billion goats and 1 billion pigs living on factories and farms worldwide. This means that humans and the animals we grow for food account for 96 percent of the mammal biomass, with wildlife accounting for only four percent.

These days, advertising campaigns try to convince us that most of our meat comes from small family farms that care about animal wellbeing and the environment. But this is not the case. About two-thirds of livestock are raised in factory farms. A few large corporations dominate the livestock industry, and for the most part, they view food loss and waste as a cost of doing business.

And even if big livestock companies truly committed themselves to reducing mortalities and meat waste within their supply chains, they would still not be able to reconcile the inherent inefficiencies of the industry – after all, 88 percent of the calories fed to livestock are never intended to contribute to the human diet.

The livestock industry only remains viable as it externalises costs onto our planet, using large amounts of land and water to produce little benefit beyond profits for shareholders. This extractive method of producing food is wasteful and ultimately unsustainable – we simply have to produce (and eat) less meat.

Towards ‘a just livestock transition’

Today, there is an urgent need to change the way we produce and consume animals. If enabled in a timely manner, a just transition in livestock production would not only help mitigate the climate crisis, but could also serve as a strong driver of job creation, social justice, poverty reduction and better public health.

Currently, the demand for industrialised livestock products in the Global North and developing nations is especially detrimental to the Global South. The massive amount of land required for industrial-scale livestock production leads to large meat and feed producers (often headquartered or with substantial operations in the Global North) accumulating large swaths of land in the Global South to the detriment of small-scale farmers, especially women and Indigenous peoples. This often leads to land conflicts, the loss of livelihoods and compromised food sovereignty.

Research shows that, without taking steps to decarbonise food systems, even if every other sector of the economy is decarbonised, we cannot meet our primary climate goal of keeping global warming below 1.5°C. However, halving food waste, eating a healthy level of calories and switching to sustainable diets could deliver 88 percent of the total mitigation needed within the food system to limit warming to 1.5°C. For this transformation to occur, we have to stop thinking about waste solely as what ends up in our bins, and start thinking about it as a symptom of a dysfunctional food system.

To enable such a transition, global multidisciplinary policy measures have to be taken to incentivise the equitable reduction and redistribution of animal protein production and consumption. Diverting public subsidies away from industrial feed and livestock production and adjusting national dietary guidelines, public procurement rules and promotion campaigns must become part of the policy agenda. It is equally essential to incentivise sustainable food production and consumption. As we saw at COP26 in Glasgow, there is a dire need to move fixing food systems much higher up on the climate change agenda. 2022 could be the year where the food and climate nexus becomes part of the negotiations. Therefore, COP27 in Egypt must make addressing food equity, loss and waste its priority.

When possible, replacing animal-based foods with more resource-efficient plant alternatives can boost food availability by reallocating production resources from feed to human food. With around 800 million people experiencing hunger globally, we can’t afford to continue food production that only exacerbates the engulfed nutrition security, climate, environmental and health crises.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.